SCL Spotlight: Central California Agriculture
Salinas Valley Farmers Face an Uphill Battle Thanks to Pending Regulations, Trucking Shortages, and Ongoing Dents in Demand
With over 1.4 million acres in Salinas Valley dedicated to agriculture, the region is well known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Crops ranging from lettuce to broccoli, spinach, strawberries, and tomatoes contribute to a total annual value of agricultural production of nearly $2 billion in the region alone.
Unfortunately, like many industry sectors, farmers throughout the Salinas Valley – which stretches from Watsonville down Highway 101 to Gonzalez, Soledad, Greenfield and into the Paso Robles region – are struggling.
Despite being critically important to California – and the United States on the whole – farming in the region has been adversely impacted not by a single issue but instead a host of COVID-related demand impact, increasing government regulations, labor shortages, high fuel costs, and logistical problems.
“Large, corporate companies can absorb some of these challenges, but it is getting very difficult for smaller farms and those owned by families,” said SCL Agricultural Specialist Ron Roth, who has worked with farmers in the Salinas Valley for over three decades. “These challenges are by and large beyond their control, and most people outside of this industry and region are unaware of them and how they might impact their ability in the future to have reliable, reasonably-priced food to consume.”
Demand for many vegetables plummeted since the beginning of COVID. While many people consume lettuce, tomatoes and celery at home, these items are most popular at restaurants, cafeterias and other food service facilities that have been hit hard by government-mandated closures and a general decline among consumers. School closings further put a dent in demand largely hit by the virtual elimination of corporate events, weddings, and restaurant purchases.
“COVID has suppressed overall demand and activity, but it’s likely that California’s exorbitant cost of living is also lowering demand to dine out,” Roth said. “When mortgages and rent, high field prices, and grocery bills are all so high, something has to give, and eating out less is one place people start pinching pennies. That plays directly into the impact on farms like those throughout the Salinas Valley.
With additional food safety regulations set to take effect on January 1, 2022, the outlook for farming is dismal. Farming is already an industry that needs to plan months and even years ahead; when demanding regulations are also coming down the pike – especially when there’s uncertainty surrounding those regulations – farmers are further handicapped by state and federal lawmakers.
“Whether it be water related or how many cattle are allowed per square feet, the entire industry can be locked up,” Roth said. “If you grow feed for cattle but don’t know how many cattle you’ll need to provide food for down the road, how do you know how much feed will be purchased? The uncertainty can be paralyzing.”
Those concerns are further compounded by increasing costs associated with trucking and transportation, as well as the nationwide shortage of drivers and rising fuel costs. Unless people are willing to pay double or triple the price for a tomato, farmers are often left selling their products for less.
“Diesel is up. Gas is up. Lubricants are up,” Roth said. “I doubt many people realize that the cost to get product from the West to the East Coast has jumped from about $4,000 to around $13,000. … It breaks my heart to see what these growers of our produce, and these vineyards I have known and worked with for decades are going through. Each day I try to help them, whether by getting them the best price possible, or by simply being available to them, delivering for them reliably so that they have one less headache in their lives. We have great drivers at SCL and put value in our own people so that our customers can rely and trust in us.”
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